The Proctor: A Legal Note from David Copperfield

The more substantial novels of Charles Dickens represent a regrettably sizable hole in my reading, one which with time I hope to plug up. I’ve started with David Copperfield and am enjoying it greatly. The writing, as much or more than the story itself, is truly magnificent.

Unlike with some of Dickens’s other work in which it is generally portrayed unflatteringly, the law and legal practice is not an absolutely central theme in David Copperfield, though it does show up from time to time. The ingratiatingly servile Uriah Heep has already been described poring over some legal treatises, and this detail is sure to resurface by and by. But the law does make something of an appearance when David, now a young man of 17 and at the urging of his aunt, selects the profession of “proctor.”

I had not before known what a proctor was. Apparently the proctor was a special kind of solicitor who dealt with both ecclesiastical and admiralty matters, an unusual combination! The position of proctor was merged with solicitor in the late 19th century. Here is a charming bit from Chapter XXIII about proctors and their practice (as relayed only slightly in jest by David’s prepossessing friend, Steerforth):

“What is a proctor, Steerforth?” said I.

“Why, he is a sort of monkish attorney,” replied Steerforth. “He is, to some faded courts held in Doctors’ Commons–a lazy old nook near St. Paul’s Churchyard–what solicitors are to the courts of law and equity. He is a functionary whose existence, in the natural course of things, would have terminated about two hundred years ago. I can tell you best what he is, by telling you what Doctors’ Commons is. It’s a little out-of-the-way place, where they administer what is called ecclesiastical law, and play all kinds of tricks with obsolete old monsters of acts of Parliament, which three-fourths of the world know nothing about, and the other fourth supposes to have been dug up, in a fossil state, in the days of the Edwards. It’s a place that has an ancient monopoly in suits about people’s wills and people’s marriages, and disputes among ships and boats.”

“Nonsense, Steerforth!” I exclaimed. “You don’t mean to say that there is any affinity between nautical matters and ecclesiastical matters?”

“I don’t, indeed, my dear boy,” he returned; “but I mean to say that they are managed and decided by the same set of people, down in that same Doctors’ Commons. You shall go there one day, and find them blundering through half the nautical terms in Young’s Dictionary, apropos of the ‘Nancy’ having run down the ‘Sarah Jane,’ or Mr. Peggotty and the Yarmouth boatmen having put off in a gale of wind with an anchor and cable to the ‘Nelson’ Indiaman in distress; and you shall go there another day, and find them deep in evidence, pro and con, respecting a clergyman who has misbehaved himself; and you shall find the judge in the nautical case, the advocate in the clergyman’s case, or contrariwise. They are like actors: now a man’s a judge, and now he is not a judge; now he’s one thing, now he’s another; now he’s something else, change and change about; but it’s always a very pleasant profitable little affair of private theatricals, presented to an uncommonly select audience.”

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